David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
The Spurs have been molded into one of the league's elite, now is it enough to win ring No. 5?
"Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don't."
- Steve Maraboli
If the Spurs were barely breathing after the playoff loss to Phoenix in 2010, surely Memphis stuck the proverbial fork in them for good.
The young, physically imposing Grizzlies had just shoved them out of the playoffs, the Thunder were soaring toward the West's elite, the Lakers and NBA champion Mavs were promising fans the arrivals of big-name free agents, and the aging Spurs were looking at a salary cap situation with as much flexibility as a fat, long-haul trucker.
And on top of all of that, a lockout loomed, the effects of which would greatly impact the way the small-market Spurs would do business moving forward.
Even after Jedi mind-tricking Richard Jefferson into taking less money in a restructured contract (though it did cost them a few more years) and temporarily relieving themselves of luxury-tax implications, the Spurs still faced a nearly $56 million price tag on the upcoming season for RJ, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker alone. It would take some careful navigation.
It was easy to view the Spurs - Grizzlies series for what it was on its surface -- an imposition of will from a bigger, more athletic team on a smallish, tactically finessing group of aging players. For the most part, that was true. Yes, Ginobili was basically playing with one arm and Duncan entered those playoffs significantly less than 100 percent, but I'm still not even sure it would have mattered. As daunting as the Memphis frontcourt duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph was, it was the Grizzlies' backcourt that ate the Spurs alive.
Whether it was Tony Allen and Sam Young, or O.J. Mayo and Shane Battier playing alongside Mike Conley and Greivis Vasquez, San Antonio's lack of size was destructive once the game slowed to a playoff pace against a Memphis team that thrived in the type of halfcourt game the Spurs once cherished. Pick-and-roll ball-handlers were crushed at the point of attack, and any loose ball was anything but fifty-fifty. The athleticism and physicality of the Grizzlies ensured that. The silver and black hadn't had to work that hard to score at any point during the season, and it took every last gasp to even win two games.
At first glance, the situation the Spurs faced in terms of finances -- not to mention the reluctance to make big changes late in Duncan's career -- made significant roster turnover a veritable non-option. The Spurs would have to adjust within their means, and that meant the departure of Gregg Popovich's favorite player.
The steal of Kawhi
In hindsight, it was almost laughable.
The Spurs tried to run primary backcourt lineups consisting of any combination of Parker, Manu, George Hill and Gary Neal. Richard Jefferson, the only perimeter player with size, morphed into a non-factor as he contributed just 10 points in the final four games of the series and faded to the end of the bench without much resistance. When you're running three-guard lineups out on the floor without a single player exceeding 6-foot-4 in height, it's difficult to play at a slower pace. San Antonio had thrived in the open court all season, and when it was relegated to 47 feet of basketball rather than the full 94, the production fell off.
San Antonio had been able to mask its average defense with high point-totals all season long, so when the offensive production went in the tank, so did the results. Again, this was a middle-of-the-pack defensive team during the regular season. It was 12th in the league in terms of field-goal percentage allowed (45.6), 14th in points allowed (97.5) and 11th in terms of defensive efficiency, or the number of points allowed per 100 possessions (102.8). But it was the Spurs' inability to defend the three-point shot that was most glaring. The No. 1 seed in the West allowed a 36.7 percent conversion rate from behind the arc, putting them at 22nd in the league in that department.
But all along the way the offense was a thing of beauty. San Antonio hummed along with a 109.4 offensive-efficiency rating, it possessed an effective field-goal percentage of 52.7 and a true-shooting percentage of 56.7 -- including a league-leading 39.7 percent from deep -- and had one of the NBA's best assist ratios. (For a glossary of advanced metrics terms, click here.)
But then the wheels fell off.
While the defense didn't collapse -- the defensive-efficiency rating dropped negligibly from 102.8 to 103.1 -- the offense became unhinged. The NBA's second-best offense during the regular season crumbled from the 109-mark to a paltry 100.5 offensive rating, and the team's effective field-goal and true-shooting percentages fell roughly five points a piece. On top of that, the Spurs NBA-best three-point percentage fell more than 10 points in the playoffs to 29.4. San Antonio's perimeter attack couldn't deal with the athleticism of Memphis' backcourt defenders as they ran them out of pick and rolls and off the three-point line. When your defense is mediocre you can't survive a that massive a drop in offensive production.
It was only the second time in NBA history a No. 1 seed had lost to a No. 8 seed under the current playoff format, and the Spurs were feeling the disappointing effects of it all as Duncan became slower by the day.
Parker had as inexcusable a performance as we'd ever seen from him with Conley dominating the matchup from the start of the series. Couple that with the growing impatience the Spurs had with Jefferson and the team was looking for an opportunity to trade them as a package in an effort to move up in the draft with the intention of immediately supplementing Manu and Duncan with a high-end young player. It probably had more to do with the need to rid themselves of RJ than giving up on Parker, but TP, at his age, was certainly a valuable potential trade piece. And with Hill in tow the Spurs were willing to try.
But nobody wanted Jefferson, and it was all for the better.
On one of the most difficult nights Popovich and R.C. Buford will admit they've ever had, the Spurs struck a deal to land Kawhi Leonard with the Indiana Pacers' first-round pick, No. 15 overall. But the price tag was Hill. The young guard had continued to develop into a sort of Tony Parker lite, developing an ability to score and effectively initiate the offense as one of the best backup guards in the league. But with the Spurs' lack of size, San Antonio felt the move to acquire the lengthy, defensively oriented forward out of California was necessary. So far, they've been OK because of it.
The new year and Danny Green
San Antonio's offseason featured nothing drastic, though many supporters were calling for it. And when you consider how attached Spurs fans can become to the players they love, there was a clear amount of trepidation and pessimism surrounding Hill's departure. But it was vital to San Antonio's plan to get bigger and better defensively. The other offseason moves of note -- once the lockout ended, of course -- came in the form of T.J. Ford and a scrap-heap casualty of the Cleveland Cavaliers named Danny Green, who actually briefly appeared in 12 games for the Spurs the year before, including the playoffs. Ford would serve as a true point guard for the Spurs' second unit, Green an end-of-the-bench swingman. Only one would finish the season with the team, unfortunately, as Ford's career ended far too soon with yet another scary injury.
Former first-rounder James Anderson was the guy with the most expectations on his shoulders going into camp. The shooting guard had an impressive start to his career before injuries derailed his rookie season, so this would be his chance to play a major role in the system. That opportunity came earlier than expected.
With a simple reach-in during the fifth game of the 2011-12 season, a broken hand kicked off LWM (Life Without Manu).
It was a state of mind the Spurs had become all too familiar with, how to play without their invaluable sixth-man-turned-starter. But with expectations not all that high around San Antonio after the team's first-round exit the season prior, fans were just hoping to tread water in his stead. Anderson had an opening to take a larger role on the team, and with a start against the Golden State Warriors a couple of nights later he had his shot. But he blew it.
Danny Green did not.
The journeyman who spent the NBA lockout playing overseas took his opportunity and ran with it, outplaying Anderson every step along the way. From his shooting to his defense, his skill-set allowed him to play the "three and D" perimeter role Popovich craves for his system. His consistency made you scratch your head at how a team like the Cavs could cut this guy, and a little more than a year later he's firmly entrenched as the starter on a newly signed multi-year contract.
And San Antonio kept right on rolling, even without Manu for the better part of six weeks. With the new-found depth, youth and range, the Spurs were making a move to implement the Pop mentality of 'defense first' and good shooting.
Still, while this team was better equipped personnel-wise to take the next step defensively, the results never showed. The Spurs' efficiency on that side of the ball was marginally better, yet it still stacked up in roughly the same spot it had the year before in terms of league rank. A lot of this had to do with the lockout. Trying to incorporate new, young players into a system full of veterans with a ton of corporate knowledge isn't the easiest to so without a full training camp. But given the presence of members of the Big 3 and solid roster continuity, San Antonio had it easier than most teams in the same situation. Because of that, the offense didn't skip a beat.
We all remember what happened. It seemed like everyone could run and score and shoot, and even the backups were running the score up on folks. Jefferson was finally traded in the return of one of the beloved Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills were brought in to add to the bench, and this Spurs team became a juggernaut that seemed unstoppable.
But it was the stops they couldn't get that ended them.
Up 2-0 on the Thunder with a trip to the Finals all but certain, Oklahoma City flipped the script. They squashed the Spurs' pick and roll on defense and couldn't be stopped in the biggest moments offensively. San Antonio had taken a 20-game win streak -- 10 straight playoff games -- into Game 3, but it wouldn't win another game before bowing out in Game 6.
It was as weird a turnaround as you'll see. Oklahoma City made wonderful adjustments by gluing Thabo Sefalosha to Tony Parker and cutting off his penetration, and Spurs role players that had been stepping up all season long fell off. Green, whose impact was felt all season, went missing, and Tiago Splitter couldn't matchup with the Thunder bigs and lost his mind at the free-throw line. Once Manu was reinserted into the starting lineup and there was nobody to check James Harden off the bench, the series was over. The opportunities made available were missed, and the Thunder's young legs and killer offensive talent were too much.
San Antonio was almost there. Hell, it looked like they were. But this process, this evolution, wasn't immediate. Duncan and Manu were getting older, but the young pieces around them were getting better. And this time they'd have a training camp to work with.
Here we are today
Duncan's contract expired, but he wasn't ready to call it quits. After all, his team had gotten way too close to his fifth chance at a title. He re-upped with the only team he'd ever known for less than $10 million per year, thus allowing the Spurs the flexibility to re-sign Green and Diaw. (Go look at the list of players who make more money than Tim...it's hilarious.) It was all about roster continuity and valuing the offseason for this team, and both have proven to be major benefits.
But there was no question where the adjustment had to come from. San Antonio had been molded into this offensive giant, a machine that operated robotically and managed to fill holes left and right when players were struggling or missing from action. It was all about the defense, an identity Pop said had been stolen from his team.
"Identity theft," he called it.
Another thing Popovich knew, returning to the top-5 in overall defense was a must. What he didn't know was that Duncan was about to have a season as good as any he's ever had on the defensive end.
Fast-forward to the All-Star break, and the Spurs are 42-12. They're the only team with at least 40 wins, and they're two and a half games ahead of the Thunder, the team with the league's second best record. The offense is rolling right along as Tony Parker is having the finest season of his career, but it's the defense that has been at a different level.
At 98.4, the Spurs have the third best defensive-efficiency rating in the league -- up from 11th last season -- and that's after Duncan missed a stretch of eight games (nine if you include the 12 minutes he played before re-injuring himself against Washington) in the last several weeks. San Antonio is also allowing the second-lowest opponent three-point field-goal percentage in the league, which is up from 19th and 22nd overall during the last two years, respectively. With the length of Green and Leonard starting on the perimeter, the Spurs are contesting shots from deep as well as they have since the title years. And given how much Pop values the three offensively, he has equally as much respect for its impact defensively, so this is one of the most telling statistics in terms of how San Antonio has generated so much success on that end this season.
And speaking of Duncan...
This magical season just continues. As the young Leonard continues to develop into one of the league's best perimeter defenders, the Big Fundamental is drastically outplaying his contract at 36 years old. He's blocking 3.3 shots per 36 minutes of court time, which is the highest rate of his career, and his ability to guard the rim like never before has allowed this team to make the types of adjustments it has. While Duncan mans the middle, the rest of the Spurs defenders have much more allowed flexibility to range out and distract shooters. There are aggressive closeouts on the ball all along the perimeter, and they know help will be there if there man is able to beat them off the dribble. But it's not just Duncan's presence at the rim. San Antonio is forcing turnovers at a higher rate.
The Spurs haven't been known for forcing many turnovers during the Popovich era, especially when it comes to steals. And there's a reason for that. They're told not to. Pop doesn't like to gamble, never has. He's always preferred you play straight up on your man and stay disciplined, as jumping passing lanes and reaching for steals violates the most important tenants of his ideology. Stay at home, don't risk the foul, don't cause the defense to unnecessarily scramble.
But he's never had anyone like Leonard.
The Spurs are third in the league in steals, and much of that has to do with what Kawhi brings to the defense. You can't pass the ball in his area, and handling it while he's attached to you is a risky proposition. He leads the team with 2.3 steals per 36 minutes, and his 95.2 defensive rating is second on the team behind only Ginobili's 95.1 in terms of players who see regular action.
So San Antonio is defending at an elite level in three areas in particular. They're guarding the rim, they're shutting down the three-point line, and their 8.7 steals per game is the team's highest average of the Popovich-Duncan era.
The difference in winning and losing late in the NBA playoffs is negligible, as was the case during last season's Western Conference Finals. While Oklahoma City did manage to take control of the series, a few points here or there could have swayed everything. With an offense just as capable of the high levels of production seen in recent years, this caliber defense could be what it takes to slow a Thunder team without James Harden.
It might not look like it now, but you watch. Without 'The Beard' coming off the bench in OKC, things will be different. Durant and Westbrook are better this season, but so are the Spurs as a whole.
Down the stretch
It's difficult to believe, but there are only 28 games remaining this season. San Antonio has, once again, managed to survive injuries and produce against odds. They've played the most consistent basketball of any team in the league, regardless of who's on the floor. As Tim and Manu continue to work their way back into form, the rest of the Spurs are playing at the kind of level this team will need come playoff time. Green has taken another step forward, Parker is one of the league's best point guards, and Kawhi is showing signs of stardom in the form of a 21-year-old. As cliche as it is to say 'there's a long way to go,' it's true, and San Antonio has made it clear its success will not be measured by regular season records.
Still, it's wild to look back on what we saw two and three years ago and jump back to today, where a 36-year-old Duncan is dominant and a team of youngsters -- pulled off the scrap heap and out of draft-day deals -- is adapting to the ways of one of the NBA's eldest statesmen. Popovich told us before the season what needed to happen for this franchise to win that elusive fifth ring, and thus far this team has been about as good as he could have asked.
The evolution toward the elite, both defensively and offensively, is nearly complete, but with all the talent that exists in the league right now it wouldn't be a failure to fall short if they do.
The Spurs won't tell you that, though. They're all in for the ring. For Duncan, Ginobili and Popovich, that time has to be now.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.